Robert Alexander pays tribute to the short-lived yet truly revolutionary Prophet 3000 which, like Sequential themselves, vanished almost overnight...
Most readers will probably never have heard of Sequential's Prophet 3000 16-bit stereo sampling system, never mind seen or used one. It made a brief appearance in the marketplace in late 1987 and then, like Sequential themselves, vanished almost overnight.
The Sequential Prophet 3000 was a 16-bit, 8-voice sampling system. Unlike the earlier Prophet 2000 sampler, which originally appeared in a keyboard version and only later as a rackmounted unit (the Prophet 2002), the Prophet 3000 was designed from the outset as a rackmounted unit only -- no keyboard version was ever seriously planned.
It was indeed a truly revolutionary instrument, with stereo sampling capability nearly two years in advance of Akai's S1000. It had a 2U rackmountable chassis with a large remote LCD display attached by a telephone cable connection, an idea that has only been adopted again with the Akai S6000. An external expansion chassis which doubled the number of voices of the Prophet 3000 was also planned, as was a SCSI hard disk storage and retrieval multitrack system. Sadly, these never made it past the prototype stage. But more of this later...
A New Approach
The standard 2Mb Prophet 3000 could sample at 32kHz, 44.1kHz and 48kHz, offering up to 10.6 seconds of stereo sampling at the highest rate, with four-voice polyphony possible. A 4Mb Prophet 3000 had 21.2 seconds of stereo sampling at 48kHz and a 4Mb memory expansion board could be added to a 4Mb Prophet to create an 8Mb Prophet 3000 that offered 42.4 seconds of stereo sampling at 48kHz. The 8Mb Prophet's largest single sample size was 4Mb, which meant that an 8Mb Prophet 3000 in mono could only allow for two single samples with a maximum of 4Mb each (not one 8Mb sample).
The eight voices could be panned anywhere within the stereo image, a common enough concept today, but unheard of in 1987. They could then be routed to any of the eight individual outputs on the back panel of the main chassis. Furthermore, if two or more samples required different stereo imaging, pairs of voices could be routed to stereo outputs. This meant that dynamic voice allocation would allow much easier voice grouping. It all sounds so straightforward now, but in 1987 this kind of approach was new and innovative.
Other developments in sampling which had just come about at that time were automated looping, automatic pitch detection and keyboard mapping. When using the Prophet 3000 to create new samples, the LCD screen displayed a VU-type representation of t
Buying A Prophet 3000 Today
The Prophet 3000 pictured (above, left) is serial number 178 and is a fully restored example of one of the extremely rare 4Mb versions. It was purchased from the Sequential gurus at Wine Country Productions Inc. of San Jose, California, (www.WineCountrySequential.com) by Robert and Simon Alexander in 1998, after a two year search. Today, assuming you can find one, a 2Mb Sequential Prophet 3000 in good condition will set you back the best part of £1000. If you want a 4Mb version, well... you'd better join the waiting list.
Once a sample had been made, the Prophet 3000 displayed the waveform on the LCD screen with automatically chosen start and end loop points. These were determined by a careful study of the amplitude of the entire sampled waveform. Owners of the Korg Wavestation will recognise the Prophet 3000 LCD screen layout as almost identical to theirs. This is hardly surprising as many of the Prophet 3000 development team went on to advance Prophet VS and Prophet 3000 concepts when developing the Korg Wavestation. Having evaluated the waveform amplitude, the optimum loop points were then chosen and displayed with a considerable amount of the original waveform before and after the start and end loop point. This was done so that any manual changes or corrections could be easily seen and made.
Auto Keyboard Mapping
The auto-looping function was not new. The Roland S-50 keyboard sampler and Digidesign Sound Designer software also had it. However, the Prophet 3000 was the first instrument to combine this with automatic keyboard-mapping. The auto-looped sample would normally be usable first time, especially on simple waveforms with clearly defined amplitudes like drumbeats. If you didn't like the auto-looped points and wanted to change the start and end positions of the loop, then you had somewhere to begin the process, rather than having to do it all manually. This meant that loops could be accurately generated and edited if required, in a matter of seconds, rather than minutes.
The automatic keyboard-mapping feature worked in much the same way. An original pitch was determined from the frequency of the sampled waveform, and the keyboard mapped up and down the scale for a range of up to two octaves (though this was heavily biased on the down-pitch side). Each successive sample made was mapped on the keyboard until the ranges began to overlap. At this point priority was given to the original pitch to allow each sample to have enough 'space' to sit next to its neighbour on the keyboard.
Auto looping and key-mapping functions were quite a novelty in 1987. They work better today, of course, with faster and more accurate processors but, even now, auto looping and key mapping is not always the way that a user wants to go. Manual looping, however, often results in clicks and pops at the chosen loop points. Sequential had cleverly equipped the Prophet 3000 with a crossfade looping function which allowed the start and end points of the waveform to overlap each other, thereby eradicating any click or pop present.
While this usually led to an inaudible loop point, the subsequent crossfading could result in an amplitude fluctuation. This would present itself as a kind of tremolo effect right at the loop point. The Prophet 3000 was the first sampler of its kind to offer a digital loop-compressor specifically designed to normalise the volume level at the crossfade loop points. The area of the waveform both before and after the loop was evaluated and the amplitude normalised across that range. It wasn't perfect every time but, in this way, a smooth, indistinguishable loop could generally be achieved. It sounds primitive by today's sampling standards, but consider that the Prophet 3000 appeared just a year and a half after the Ensoniq Mirage which had no real visual looping function of any kind.
The Prophet 3000 was an instrument which, had it been further developed, would have dominated the sampler market. However, it also had its problems such as very poor MIDI implementation software, coupled with some serious glitches when assigning samples over MIDI to different channels. This tended to lead to a MIDI freeze which could only be corrected by turning the unit off and then on again.
As with all samplers of this era, the operating system was on the sample disks, and not within the ROM of the unit itself. Because of the limited storage capacity of a 1987 floppy disk, a standard 2Mb Prophet 3000 required two floppies to store a reasonable size sample (hence each category in the library having two disks). A 4Mb Prophet used 4HD floppy disks, and an 8Mb Prophet used 8HD floppy disks, so sampl For me, however, the really impressive disks are the Choir & Strings samples. Sequential has always had a certain sound which epitomised their instruments; the Prophet 5, Prophet T8 and Prophet VS are all instantly recognisable. This is much harder to achieve with a sampler because the sounds are not synthesized as such, but sampled waveforms of actual sounds. However, the Prophet 3000 'Choirs & Strings' are unlike any other that I have heard and 'Pressure Pan Choir' and 'Slow Strings' are exceptional.
Each Prophet 3000 was supplied with eight 3-inch floppy disks with the sound library on them. There were four sound library categories: Grand Piano, Choir & Strings, Stereo Effects and Performance Set #1. Each category was made up of two disks and each disk had the operating system on it and part of ten sounds. The sounds themselves were expertly sampled with wonderful brass and guitars in particular. As you would expect from a stereo sampler, the Stereo Effects disks were very well sampled with 'Breaking Glass', 'Church Bells' and 'Porta Crowd' standing out.
For me, however, the really impressive disks are the Choir & Strings samples. Sequential has always had a certain sound which epitomised their instruments; the Prophet 5, Prophet T8 and Prophet VS are all instantly recognisable. This is much harder to achieve with a sampler because the sounds are not synthesized as such, but sampled waveforms of actual sounds. However, the Prophet 3000 'Choirs & Strings' are unlike any other that I have heard and 'Pressure Pan Choir' and 'Slow Strings' are exceptional.
Before the final curtain fell, Sequential completed some 250 Prophet 3000s, a very small number by modern standards. The vast majority of these were fitted with the 2Mb memory storage chips. A handful (perhaps, just twenty) escaped the factory with 4Mb of onboard memory. Those that eventually made it onto the marketplace were welcomed by users in America where prices were kept reasonable, though news of Sequential's demise caused some natural concern regarding after-sale support. In the UK, things were a little different. High exchange rates meant that Prophet 3000s commanded a £3795.00 price tag, nearly triple the cost of an Ensoniq Mirage and double that of Sequential's own Prophet 2000/2002 sampler. Consequently very few were sold here.
So why did such an obviously innovative musical instrument simply disappear from the marketplace so suddenly, and after so few had been built? The reason was Yamaha's purchase of Sequential in the first week of January 1988, lock, stock and... prophet.
Fresh from conquering the synthesizer world with their DX-series, the Japanese music manufacturing giants had been keeping an eye on the ailing fortunes of Sequential for some time. They were keen to add to their own technical knowledge by obtaining the engineers and designers that had given the world the Prophet series of synthesizers. Just before Christmas 1987, Yamaha made an offer that Sequential found impossible to refuse.
Ten years earlier, Sequential Circuits, as they were then known, had been dominating the world synthesizer market, along with American giants Moog, ARP, and Oberheim. It had been Sequential, whose technical innovation had produced the Prophet 5, Prophet 10 and Prophet T8 synthesizers. This led to the world's first MIDI instrument, the Prophet 600 in 1983, and the first multitimbral instrument, the Sequential Six Trak in 1984. Unfortunately, due to some incredibly poor product marketing decisions in 1986 and 1987, Sequential were making anything but a profit (you'll have to pardon the pun here), and were in deep financial trouble. By 1987, the company was in serious disarray, and even products such as the Prophet VS, which was years ahead of its time, could not save the company from the inevitable Yamaha buyout.
After purchasing Sequential, the Japanese didn't want a potential rival to one of their own products, the Yamaha TX16W sampler, which was due to be launched in April 1988. The TX16W had been on the Yamaha drawing board for over two years, and because it represented the company's first sampler product, they were keen to ensure its success. The creative and technical genius that had produced the last of the Prophets was swallowed up by the giant Yamaha Corporation, and the Prophet 3000 became the first victim of the take-over in order to make way for the TX16W.
The Plot Thickens
Of course, the irony for the Prophet 3000 and Sequential is that the TX16W was a woeful instrument with a wholly inadequate operating system and completely disfunctional features. Though launched and eventually re-launched by Yamaha it was, and still is, probably the worst sampler to ever appear on the marketplace. When Yamaha acquired Sequential, there were no unsold Prophet 3000s in stock. Sequential had pre-sold the first production run to European dealers, and all 67 Prophet 3000s built in 1987 (with the exception of a few in-house prototypes), were shipped to the Sequential Circuits subsidiary in Europe. Yamaha acquired and warehoused the Prophet 3000 parts, not the finished Prophet 3000s. Eventually these parts were used to build the remaining Prophet 3000s later in 1988, and these were stored as finished goods until they were sold in 1989.
To be fair to Yamaha, they cannot be entirely blamed for the demise of the Prophet 3000, though they effectively cancelled the project before it had been given a chance to establish itself. If it were not for Yamaha, the Prophet 3000, as we know it, would never have existed. The Revision 1 Prophet 3000s, actually built by Sequential and shipped to Europe in 1987, had very serious hardware and software problems, they were unreliable and not operationally functional. After completing the acquisition of Sequential in 1988, Yamaha paid for the cost of finishing the Prophet 3000 design, and manufacturing the Prophet 3000 Revision A and Revision B versions that were ultimately sold in the USA in 1989.
It seems more likely that by late 1988 Yamaha's strategy had shifted and they simply decided not to direct their resources to pursue the design and manufacture of any samplers. The paradox is that if Yamaha could have released the Prophet 3000 in mid-1988, and not the TX16W, things might have been very different indeed. With the massive distribution and marketing power of Yamaha behind such a product, coupled with the sheer ingenuity of the instrument, not to mention its sonic capability, the Prophet 3000 might well have gone on to dominate the sampler market in the way that the Akai S-series did for eight years. Yamaha were undoubtedly deeply affected by the failure of the TX16W, and only very recently have they seriously attacked the sampler market again with their new A-series.
By the time the Prophet 3000 was ready for release, Sequential had long since dug their own grave. If Yamaha had not acquired them in 1988, the company would have been closed down by their bank and creditors. Had that occurred instead, any organised technical support benefiting tens of thousands of Sequential Circuits Prophet owners after the 1987 demise of Sequential Circuits would most likely never have materialised.
The Sequential Prophet 3000 will have to go down in history as one of those musical instruments which very nearly 'made it' to the top, and perhaps really should have. Had Sequential been able to withstand the financial pressure upon them, and continued manufacturing, the Prophet 3000 might have, in time, been their saviour. As it was, it became their nemesis.
Twist In the Tale
There is one final twist to this story. During the research into the Prophet 3000, some of the original Sequential team who developed it were spoken to. It seems as if there was also a Pro
Prophet 3000 MIDI Problems
The Prophet 3000's CPU has difficulty processing Running Status and the All Notes Off commands continuously sent via MIDI by most Roland gear (up until the U-20). The Roland D-50 is a notoriously poor controller for the Prophet 3000, causing the unit to lock-up due to running status and the stream of All Notes Off commands. As a result of this flood of MIDI data, the Prophet's CPU becomes inundated with MIDI data that it doesn't use, but is required to process, which then overloads the processor and causes the Prophet to lockup. To operate the Prophet 3000 best, you should limit the MIDI data stream to only that which the Prophet can use, and disable or filter out any unnecessary MIDI data.
The Prophet 3002 was planned to have been a SCSI hard drive system capable of four tracks of disk-based multitrack recording. Does this sound familiar? It seems that the Prophet 3002 was not that dissimilar to a hardware version of the original Sound Tools system from Digidesign, the forerunner of Pro Tools (and we all know what that went on to become). The Prophet 3001 never got off the drawing board and though component parts for up to six prototypes of the Prophet 3002 were made, these were for engineering evaluation. Probably only two were actually completed, but of course, it all came far too late to save Sequential.
So ends the story of the last Prophet. It seems as if time, money and fate had all conspired to doom to the realms of history one of the most innovative companies to have ever manufactured musical instruments.